“Something Needs to Change”

Todd Bunker

On August 10, a Seattle-area airport worker stole a plane and crashed it, killing himself. Because his working conditions were so miserable, his former coworker says in an interview, the act wasn't a complete shock.

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Interview by
Joe Allen

The US workplace produced another devastating act of worker violence on August 10, when Richard Russell stole a plane from his employer Horizon Air in Seattle and crashed it on August 10. He died in the crash.

While few answers about what led Russell to kill himself at work have emerged, Todd Bunker, a writer who worked briefly with Russell at Horizon, says the actions weren’t totally shocking given the nature of work at the SeaTac Airport.

Bunker has published two novels and recently wrote in Seattle’s alt-weekly the Stranger about his time working with Russell in 2016 in an article called “I Worked With Richard Russell at Horizon Air, and I Understand Why He Did What He Did.”

“Richard’s situation was not unusual for what has morphed into a wage-slave economy,” Bunker writes. “The fact that he had access to a plane makes it sensational.”

Joe Allen spoke to Bunker about the incident for Jacobin.


JA

You worked briefly with Russell on the ramp at Horizon. What were the working conditions like?

TB

As I said in the Stranger article, controlled chaos is probably the best description. Between the economic boom in Seattle and cut-rate airfare, the passenger traffic is relentless, and you have to realize Alaska/Horizon is just one of several airliners sharing the airport. Add on top hot summer weather, wildfire smoke — it’s a challenging environment.

The people on the ramp are aware of this coming in, and maybe even enjoy the challenge. But the problem is that Horizon Air (at least when I was there in 2016) didn’t seem at all interested in giving their employees more than the most bare-bones break room and locker room to catch their collective breathes. The whole environment at Horizon SeaTac felt underfunded and underappreciated for what they were asking of us.

For instance, in the hot summer months, the answer to trying to keep the break room, locker room, dispatch, and equipment area cool was to turn off as many lights as possible. There was no respite from the demanding outdoor work conditions.

 

JA

Russell’s family and friends expressed shock at his actions, but you wrote in the Stranger that you were surprised but not shocked by his actions. Why?

TB

The intensity of the environment working on the ramp, coupled with the obvious lack of respect for the employees on the ground — there’s still that aura of glitz and glamour associated with air travel, that hasn’t been reality in decades. There’s that lure of the prestige of working at the airport — and free air travel! — that clashes with being treated like an expendable cog when you’re actually on the ground making it happen.

Everything you want is right there, just out of reach. Management knows this, which is why they’ll always have a new wave of employees on tap. Or people who stick around hoping that conditions will improve. It would be a great job if Horizon paid their employees what they were worth skill- and responsibility-wise, and gave them a break room that wasn’t, for lack of a better term, an overcrowded shit hole.

 

JA

Most of the post-crash discussion centers on security issues at Sea-Tac and other US airports. Nothing has been said about addressing the toxic workplace that likely produced this tragedy. Does that surprise you?

TB

No, the response has been all PR and crisis management. They’re just
waiting for the next big news story to take them out of the spotlight,
basic corporate damage control. I watched the press conference on the
Saturday morning after the incident, and [the level of disorganization there] tells you everything you need to know about the culture at SeaTac.

And I knew they’re just going to add security to the cargo/staging area and put some sort of locking mechanism on the planes. The mindset is reactive instead of proactive, and in the end they will end up spending more money than if they would just pay their employees a living wage in the first place.

JA

Workplaces across the country seem characterized by this kind of toxic atmosphere. I’ve written about the faux military culture at UPS and its deadly consequences. Horizon appears to have large number of former military men in supervisory positions. What was that like?

TB

Management preys on the honesty, integrity, and ideals of the employees. I never felt intimidated by my immediate supervisors, but then again I was in my mid-forties and have a college degree. I’ve been around the block a few times.

If you were twenty-two years old, a single guy, high school diploma, you might think that eventually something could come of it. But, in the end, you’re expendable. That’s a dangerous attitude management is taking towards civilian employees working with civilian customers.

What’s the worst that could happen? We just found out. Almost. It would’ve been devastating if Richard had decided to fly into SeaTac’s main terminal, or the packed Pearl Jam concert at Safeco Field that had just started. The Port of Seattle, Alaska Air Group, especially Horizon Air — they dodged a huge bullet.

 

JA

The airline industry, like the trucking industry, was at one time heavily regulated and unionized. Four decades of restructuring and cost cutting have transformed the industry. Do you think that having a better regulated industry and unionized workplace could made a difference in Richard Russell’s life?

TB

It would have improved his daily life, but if it would’ve stopped this
tragedy nobody can say. Richard took the answers with him.

There are a lot of desperate working people out there. And we’re surprised when they lash out? Or give up on working all together and slide into an opioid haze? To the shareholders and executives who are making however many times more money than the average employee, that’s just the cost of doing business. Something needs to change.